We get a lot of people that come through our doors from various areas - both local and afar - and we are constantly asked about our food area and places to eat beyond our establishment. The question always gives us pause, even hesitation, before answering. And invariably, always has me wanting to cast a caveat explanation - so I will do it here, at our own risk.
It isn't that there isn't good food here in this town. And it isn't that the same pitfalls (hit or miss service, inconsistent food quality) that ail some of our great food destinations regionally (Asheville, Raleigh, Richmond, Charleston) don't occur. I mean, sometimes a server has a bad night, sometimes the kitchen is understaffed on a shift. "Trainwrecks" happen - even to us. Every restaurant, even the ones with regional celebrity chefs, have a constant challenge of balancing performance with profitability. BUT, what about the food? Ahhh, yes, the food. Well, here is the thing: Wilmington just isn't that good yet.
There are countless reasons why.
For one, the talent level - while good - isn't nearly high enough. And when it is, it is too often misguided or so wrapped in itself, that it gets steered away from improving its own kitchen and menu. Don't get me wrong, it's very challenging developing a menu each week/month/season that tests your hourly talent, forces your own progress, and appeals to (and simultaneously challenges) your guests' palates. But to be great in this industry, to make regional - or more ambitious - headlines with your food, you have to be willing to force the issue. In Wilmington, there are too many easy ways out. And too often, the chefs and restaurants in this town, are too willing to abide.
Another contributing factor limiting this area's food prominence is the area magazines/publications/news and their writers/reviewers. There is no critical element to most of the food reviews of every restaurant in this area. Most, if not all, are aimed at a "social share" approach that looks to align itself as a partner with the establishment (at times for future advertising/marketing/business propositions), more than a critique of food, service, or the experience. "Give the readers information, let them decide." "Give the establishment exposure, if they succeed - hopefully they will in-turn do advertising with us." Some of the areas publications' approach is more direct: "if you do advertising with us, we will write a feature article on you." Paid press rarely advances a kitchen or a chef. A non-challenging review(er) of an establishment isn't the reason for bad food, it isn't the reason for stagnating a city's food growth, but it does reinforce a sense of a homogeneous cuisine, where if all are good, then none are great.
The biggest reason for Wilmington's shortfall here is "time". Good kitchens/chefs take years to develop. Great kitchens take longer. The restaurant turnover in this town is, like other cities, brutal. There are a few seedlings in place, but hardly any that root.
Look, I desperately want this city to have better food - to have better restaurants that move our great little city into a great food town. There are restaurants with potential here. I have eaten at all of them. All the highly praised/highly reputable and all the "most popular". There is only one or two I would recommend, and the great meals I have there are rare.
So, in short, don't be surprised when you have "hit and miss" experiences in this town for food. We are in our food infancy in this town, but we are working everyday to grow. What we need is a few more critical voices (beyond the yelpers and tripvisor variety) to reinvigorate complacent cooks bent on being "chefs".